Most science fiction films announce their arrival with a bang. If a movie is about aliens, we'll be seeing aliens in the first ten minutes. If the movie features time traveling robots, we'll see some time traveling robot action within the first act. Most movies wear their genre on their sleeve and display it proudly.

Some movies don't announce their true identities so soon. For better or for worse, some movies don't let their freak flag fly until late in the narrative, long after it's lured in viewers who would normally never watch a science fiction story. Below, I've taken the time to dissect eight science fiction movies that may not, at first, appear to be science fiction movies. I know I've missed too many to count, so feel free to abuse and educate me in the comments below!

Oh, and it gets about as spoilery as you can get from here on out, so tread lightly.



1. Predator
(1987)



How Does It Start?

Well, technically the very first shot tells us this is a science fiction film, but no one remembers that shot. They remember the dawn arrival of a helicopter filled with the toughest team of mercenaries ever put on film, the bicep-bulging reunion of Arnold Schwarzenegger's Dutch and Carl Weathers' Dylan and the lousy tough-guy jokes on the chopper flight into hostile territory. The first act of Predator is the best men-on-a-mission action film of the 1980s, complete with the standard Arnie death-puns ("Stick around!"). It's the manliest non-homo erotic movie ever made, the story of a team of bad*ss super soldiers ruining nameless guerillas in the jungle...

Whoa! What Was That?

...And then an invisible monster brutally shuffles the mortal coil of Shane Black's Comic Relief Commando. An alien big game hunter, eh? That sucks. You just can't plan for some things.

Now What?

The science fiction twist of Predator (which isn't really a twist since everyone knows it's going to happen, but whatever, this is my article) is brilliant not only for its concept, but for how and when it is revealed in the movie. By hiding the titular villain for the first thirty minutes or so, we get to spend time watching Schwarzenegger, Weathers, Jesse Ventura, Bill Duke and Sonny Landham prove that they're the toughest guys on the planet. They're relentless and deadly and pretty much unstoppable in that 1980s action movie kind of way.

Once we're comfortable with the fact that no human being can possibly bring these guys down, a super-intelligent creature with highly advanced weaponry pops up and begins picking them off with relentless ease. I don't think anyone who watches Predator will ever forget Ventura's sudden demise, where his minigun-toting Blain goes down without a fight.

Of course, this all culminates in the classic climax, where Arnie goes mano-a-beastie with the Predator, a sequence that manages to feel equal parts Conan the Barbarian and Alien. The science fiction element ups the ante, increases the threat and manages to make a goofy flick into one of the great sci-fi action hybrids of all time.



2. The Forgotten (2004)



How Does It Start?

Julianne Moore had a son. Julianne Moore's son died some time ago. Julianne Moore is sad. Julianne Moore is told she never had a son and she's suffering from delusions stemming from her miscarriage many years ago. Julianne Moore doesn't believe this. Julianne Moore finds an ally in a man who remembers a child who also apparently never existed. Julianne Moore is on a quest. Julianne Moore will find the truth.

Whoa! What Was That?

Oh. Aliens did it.

Now What?

Hey, I never said this was going to be "8 GOOD Science Fiction Films That Don't Start as Science Fiction," but The Forgotten was one of the very first films to spring to mind during the initial brainstorming process. I still remember seeing the trailer about about 72 times in theaters and how it was sold as conspiracy thriller about a mother scorned. Like Flightplan, but with a lot of running instead of airplanes.

Perhaps aliens being the culprits is pretty obvious in retrospect and it's the only way the movie could have really worked without a "Oh My God It Was In Her Mind All Along!" twist ending, but man, is it silly. I wish I could remember the details, but the irony of the title is how forgettable the entire movie really is. Zing!

I do remember that we never see the aliens. We do see Julianne Moore getting punched by invisible somethings in the alien's lair (which is a, uh, a warehouse) and defeating these all-powerful extra-terrestrials through the power of love and somehow magically getting her son back but not remembering her entire ordeal. Yawn.


3. The Box (2009)



How Does It Start?

Set in 1976, Norma and Arthur Lewis (Cameron Diaz and James Marsden) are reasonably normal couple with a reasonably normal child who live in a reasonably normal neighborhood. She's a teacher, he works for NASA and money is looking pretty tight. One day, Arlington Seward (Frank Langella) arrives on their doorstep with a proposition. He will leave them with a box for 24 hours. In the box is a button. If they push the button, they'll get one million dollars...but someone they don't know will die. What follows is a dark fable of morality, ethics and making tough decisions, right? Right?

Whoa! What Was That?

Three self-sustaining pillars of water that act as dimensional portals in the middle of a library? Whaaa? Martians teleporting into Frank Langella's face via lightning? Whaaaa? The box is part of an ongoing test conducted by Martians and their zombie minions to decide if the human race is worth saving? Whaaaaa?

Now What?

The Box is based, er, "loosely inspired" by Richard Matheson's short story "Button, Button." Matheson may be famous for his horror and science fiction stories, but "Button, Button" is a very simple, stripped down drama that exists solely to propose one central question: what is the worth of a human life in the face of a fortune?

But you can't expect director Richard Kelly (of Donnie Darko fame and Southland Tales infamy) to make anything simple or stripped down. So he throws in aliens. And conspiracies. And dimensional portals. And horribly disfiguring injuries. And nosebleeds. Lots and lots of nosebleeds. Unlike most of the films on this list, The Box doesn't become a science fiction film through a sudden plot twist, but rather builds up to it, adding odd layer after odd layer, getting deeper and stranger and more twisted as it goes. Soon, we learn that the box is part of test by "those who control the lightning" (aka, ALIENS! From Mars, no less), who are trying to decide if human beings are worth saving. They're kind of the anti-Klaatu: testing humanity's worth through deceit and trickery rather than being Space Jesus.

It's ambitious for sure, but the weight of Kelly's ideas force the entire movie to implode at the end, where our heroes are forced to make a new decision that: 1. Doesn't make any sense in the context of the story and 2. Goes against the entire "we always have a choice" theme of the movie. Kelly took a simple dramatic premise and gave it a sci-fi makeover, bloating it to the point of bursting. That doesn't mean it's not interesting. This is the definition of a noble failure.


4. Eagle Eye (2008)



How Does It Start?

Shia LaBeouf and Michelle Monaghan are minding their own business when they get a phone call from a mysterious woman. She frames him for being a terrorist. She threatens the life of her young son. This voice is going to help them out of the little mess it put them in...as long as they do what it wants. With the cops and the FBI on their tail, the two embark on a wild and crazy journey filled with car chases and foot chases and car chases and...you get the point. And then, around the halfway mark, that mysterious female voice reveals her identity...

Whoa! What Was That?

She's HAL 9000. Well, not quite, but she is an advanced supercomputer with a red glowing eye. Her name is Aria and she's pretty much an embodiment of the Patriot Act. And she's smarter than you and can hack into anything. Sorry, Even Stevens. You're screwed.

Now What?


There aren't many plot changes post-revelation, really. More car chases, more foot chases, more car chases. BUT NOW THERE'S AN EVIL COMPUTER BEHIND IT ALL! It started as a silly action movie and it ends as a silly action movie. Like The Forgotten, this was a film sold as a conspiracy thriller (and sold constantly for what felt like at least a year), so perhaps the "OMG COMPUTERZ DID IT!!!11" revelation had a bit more weight to it at the time of release.

With some distance, the "twist" feels obvious. Plus, what's more ridiculous? A supercomputer going rogue and manipulating people into a full-blown coup de'tat? Or the fastest hacker in the world, who can instantly manipulate street lights, access any and all security cameras and pretty much control anything with an electric current?

Either way, it would feel like science fiction. Not smart or particularly compelling science fiction, but science fiction.


5. The Lucifer Complex (1978)



How Does It Start?

This is the oldest film on the list and probably the one the fewest people have seen. Sometimes, I wonder if I'm the only one in the western hemisphere to have made it past the opening scene, which is, quite literally, a man sitting in front of a monitor and watching stock footage of various wars and Woodstock for twenty minutes. Seriously. After we finish suffering through that, the plot of this low-budget cheapie kicks in: Robert Vaughn is a soldier (or cop or something, this whole movie feels like a bad fever dream, so forgive me if I'm vague with plot details) who discovers that the Nazis were not defeated in World War II...they just packed up and moved to the Florida Everglades! Nazi soldiers in WWII uniforms with WWII weaponry watch over a secret concentration camp in the middle of Florida swampland. You should not be surprised when I tell you the climax features a bunch of women in sexy Holocaust-wear staging an escape from captivity while Vaughn takes on the Third Reich in a hijacked tank. It's that kind of movie. And yes, it's awesome. But then, in the final ten minutes or so-

Whoa! What Was That?

Is that...is that a clone of Hitler? No, surely it's just...No, it is.

Now What?

The finale has something to do with Nazi plans to clone world leaders and take over the world. Up until this point in the movie, we know that they're up to something none-to-savory, but it isn't until Hitler himself makes a grand appearance that we know that this isn't fiction with some science thrown in, but science fiction. Albeit, science fiction Nazi-sploitation.

You should not be surprised when I tell you that Hitler is killed by his own sentient Eagle statue, which disintegrates him with a laser. And yes, it's awesome.


6. Vanilla Sky (2001)



How Does It Start?

Tom Cruise is a rich douchebag who, like any man with good taste, falls in love with Penelope Cruz. When Cameron Diaz, his crazy ex-girlfriend, finds out, she drives her car off a bridge. With him in it. Diaz goes dead and Cruise goes ugly, his face horribly scarred in the accident. He becomes reclusive and more than a little unstable, but some convenient corrective surgery and the effervescent Cruz turn him around and he finds happiness. Until he starts to go insane and see things. Maybe.

Whoa! What Was That?

Hey, um, you know the the movie you've been watching? The somewhat realistic dramatic thriller about a guy coming to terms with his personal issues, getting over a disfiguring injury and connecting with the real woman of this dreams? Yeah, well, for the second half of the running time, he's, uh, he's...he's-been-in-cryo-stasis-for-150-years-by-his-choice-and-all-of-this-has-been-a-waking-dream-that-symbolizes-his-deepest-fears-and-desires. Sorry to say that so quickly. The movie's almost over.

Now What?

This is a sticky one, because it is entirely possible to interpret the ending in several ways, but I'm going to take it at face value and declare that Vanilla Sky's conclusion is not a dream, not a coma fantasy and not a novel being written by a supporting character. Tom Cruise will wake up after the events of the movie and it will be 150 years in the future.

This is the only film on the list where the sci-fi twist literally comes in the closing moments, which, arguably, makes it the least sci-fi of the bunch. To this I would agree: to classify Vanilla Sky as a pure science fiction film would be wrong. It's what the motion picture advertisements call a "psychological thriller" first and foremost. So, here's the question for you folks in the comments section: is making the bulk of the film a waking dream brought on by Cruise's self-imposed cryogenic freezing a lazy choice? Is it exploiting the infinite possibilities of science fiction to get away with not having a real ending? Or is it trying to create a dialogue among viewers?

Go ahead and give it a watch again. It's not as bad as you've heard.


7. The Prestige (2006)



How Does It Start?

Christopher Nolan squeezed out this little gem between the Batman Begins and The Dark Knight and it's easily among his strongest work. Borden (Christian Bale) and Angier (Hugh Jackman) are magicians in turn of the century London. Angier hates Borden because he may have caused caused the death of his wife in a magic trick gone horribly awry. As both men gain notoriety for their magic acts, their rivalry intensifies, leading to shattered legs, missing fingers and (Dare I say it?) broken hearts. This movie is cool enough when it's just a meticulously structured period thriller about two men who destroy themselves and each other in a vicious circle of vengeance, but then Nolan pulls out the awesome card.

Whoa! What Was That?

Angier meets Nikola Tesla (David Bowie!). Tesla builds a machine for Angier that will replicate Borden's signature "Transported Man" illusion. And by replicate, I mean it will use the infinite power of electricity to create a perfect replica of its subject. And by that, I mean HOLY CRAP.

Now What?

If you'll allow me to trot out some Arthur C. Clarke: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." The Prestige makes a big deal about magic not being real. Nolan lets us see the inside and outside of every illusion, how the characters use slight of hand, visual tricks, nifty gadgets and extreme, lifelong commitment to create the illusion of magic.

That's why Clarke's quote is relevant. That's why The Prestige is such a brilliant little movie. Angier finds a way to actually do what magicians only pretend to do. However, it's not done through the discovery of real magic, but through the application of advanced technology. Of course, this means Angier has to kill off a clone of himself (or is the clone killing the original?) every time he performs, but that's something he can live with.

However, there is nothing to suggest that this turn is coming. The rest of the movie is played so straight with so much attention paid to period detail that an electric powered cloning machine seems to come straight out of left field. For the first 2/3 of the movie, you have no idea you're watching a science fiction movie, but repeat viewings reveal that Nolan never hides this, he just doesn't call attention to it. The science fiction is on display in the first scene of the movie, just lurking in the background.

The Prestige manages to keep itself somewhat grounded and never becomes hard science fiction, but it fully embraces its fantastical side, taking developments that would have thrown most movies off course in stride. The sci-fi elements slide right on into the already complicated narrative, making what was already a very cool movie into one of the coolest movies of the '00s.


8. Dark City (1998)



How Does It Start?

We could debate this one, but I'll save that for the "Now What?" section.

Rufus Sewell wakes up in a hotel bathtub with no memory of who he is. There is a dead prostitute in the other room. A group men dressed in black, the Strangers, are after him. A voice on the phone tells him to run. He does. Jennifer Connelly is his concerned nightclub singer girlfriend who is now faced with the prospect that the man she loves is the serial killer that's been plaguing the city. William Hurt is the police detective hot on his trail. Soon, they all learn that something is not quite right, especially since the Strangers seem to have the strange ability to manipulate the world around them. And especially since everyone's memories feel...off. Soon, with all of our heroes at the edge of the city, they break down a brick wall, hoping to find the truth...

Whoa! What Was That?

They just airlocked William Hurt. They just...THEY JUST AIRLOCKED WILLIAM HURT! Out a brick wall! The entire city is frakkin' spaceship!

Now What?

This one is a little tenuous, especially if you don't watch the director's cut, which makes tiny but extremely important changes to how and when information is revealed. The theatrical cut's opening voice over tells us straight off that the Strangers are aliens. The director's cut removes this narration altogether. This tiny change deepens the mystery and makes the reveal that beyond the city's walls lies nothing but OUTER SPACE far more chilling.

Some would argue that Dark City is obviously a science fiction film from the start, with amazing production design torn straight out of 1920s German Expressionism and villains with telekinesis and the ability to freeze time and manipulate the city to their will. In terms of the director's cut, this all plays like a horror film more than anything, an ode to films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The alien aspect remains a surprise. In the theatrical cut, we know it's science fiction, but that doesn't stop the reveal of the city's true nature to be a total gamechanger, propelling the film from one type of science fiction into another altogether.

Either way, I love how the style of the film initially appears to operate strictly as a homage, but the ultimate revelation takes it beyond a stylistic choice. It is a true alien world.


One thing I noticed while putting this together was the lack of older films that fit this type. Have things changed in the past decade or so? Has it only recently become okay to blend genres as these films do? Or am I just a moron who needs to learn his film history? I hope to hear about it below.
CATEGORIES Features, Sci-Fi